Commentary Magazine


Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare

Despair is a contagion that can kill a political movement. As Pete Wehner brilliantly noted here earlier today in his piece about the Tea Party mindset, the apocalyptic view of the ObamaCare defunding fight has led many conservatives to take an all-or-nothing position that sees greater value in going down fighting for a lost cause than continuing the patient, incremental struggle toward eventual victory. Since they see nothing but darkness ahead, treating the debate about how to combat the liberal agenda has become one in which anyone who preaches compromise on any point or even patience is a traitor. As George Will admirably put in his column in Friday’s Washington Post, the Tea Partiers seem to have something in common with their foe President Obama: a disdain for politics that respects the intent of the Framers to restrain factions via divided government with checks and balances. James Madison would view Obama’s notion of imposing his views on Congress and the nation with horror. But he would have had the same reaction to the notion that the House of Representatives could do the same to the Senate and the executive branch.

That’s the ideological framework for the disagreement between the Tea Party and those on the right who believe they are in danger of crashing the Republican Party and the chances of conservatives stopping Obama’s agenda in the long run. Yet the tactical mistake they are making isn’t that ObamaCare is bad. They are right about that. Where they are wrong is the assumption that losing today’s fight about health care means an inevitable descent into socialized medicine and the ultimate death of American freedom. In fact, the implementation of ObamaCare over the coming months and years is not the end of the battle. And that is why Tea Partiers need not only to stop trying to shoot their allies but to keep their power dry for the coming rounds of combat over the issue that will be just as, if not more important than the fight that just ended.

It should be remembered that as bad as ObamaCare is, it was actually a hybrid plan based on something that was promoted in the 1990s by, of all places, the Heritage Foundation, as a way to get more people covered by insurance without creating a socialized medicine scheme. It was mistake but it was also the inspiration for Massachusetts’ foray into the same topic under Mitt Romney a few years later. To note this is not to defend the concept (which I continue to oppose) or to mock the good people at Heritage who have now changed their minds about the idea (everyone’s entitled to a mistake and to change their mind). Rather it is to point out that for liberals, ObamaCare was a foot in the door rather than an end in of itself. Their goal remains a single-payer system. ObamaCare will raise health care costs rather than lower them, take away choices from Americans as well as many of their jobs and hurt the economy. But it is just the first step toward measures that will truly be a step away from freedom that conservatives fear. As such, the real battle for liberty is the one that is ahead of us, not the one just concluded.

In the coming years, conservatives must be ready to do two things.

One is to hold the Democrats accountable for the failures and the costs of the scheme they shoved down the throats of the American people on a partisan vote in 2010. The problem with the so-called Affordable Care Act is not just a bunch of computer glitches. It is a structural monstrosity whose ill-considered features will continue to be exacerbated by governmental incompetence. Instead of assuming that once in place it cannot be revoked — the conceit that is at the heart of liberal confidence about their ability to prevail in coming debates — they should have more confidence in the American people. If conservatives truly believe that it is a bad idea and will hurt the country, then they shouldn’t take it for granted that Americans will not have the sense to get rid of it after it has proved a failure.

Second, they must prepare for the next round of political combat on the issue that will not be merely more attempts to repeal ObamaCare but the inevitable effort from the left to expand it toward the single payer model that they really want. That is especially true since liberals will dishonestly blame ObamaCare’s failures on it being a halfway measure rather than on the faults at the heart of the concept.

Doing so successfully will involve not only providing reasonable arguments against the leftist agenda but coming up with alternatives that will create a safety net for those not covered by insurance but who really need it. Above all, it will require a functioning political force that is able to work within the Madisonian construct rather than a band of zealots on a glorious if ultimately unsuccessful kamikaze mission. If conservatives spend the next year attempting to purge their ranks of those who didn’t ride along enthusiastically on Ted Cruz’s charge of the Light Brigade, they will be ensuring that the Republican Party won’t be able to stop the liberal’s next move.

History did not end this past week. Nor did the conservative movement. In many ways, the real challenge for conservatives isn’t just stopping ObamaCare but, as I wrote last month in an essay for the Intercollegiate Review, rescuing the cause of freedom from despair. The struggle to defend the Constitution they care so much about depends on them dropping their pessimism, resuming the obligation to pursue Madisonian political compromise and taking heart for the struggles that are ahead of them.

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